The Power of Apologizing to Your Kids
What you do after you mess up is SO important!
by Steve Silvestro, MD @zendocsteve
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So I had a Bad Dad Moment the other night…
I was putting my daughter to bed and decided to recap a moment that had happened earlier in the day—something we often do, but things usually turn out better than they did that night.
Earlier in the day, we’d been at her swim meet and one of the other parents had cheerfully asked her what events she was swimming. When my daughter replied that one of her events was the Individual Medley, or “IM”—a grueling, multi-lap race consisting of four different strokes and that tires out even the best of swimmers—she finished by glumly saying: “But I don’t really want to.”
In that moment, her comment struck me as being unnecessarily negative—definitely not the type of self-talk you want right before a race, but also the type of comment that moves in like a storm cloud and changes the tone of a conversation from polite and cheery to an uninvited downer.
So as I sat on the bed with her that night, I could have asked her why she chose to say that then. Was she looking for reassurance that she’d be great in the race? Was she nervous about something? And now that the meet was long over and she’d done well in her IM, could she see how she might feel differently next time?
I should have said that. Any of it.
I launched into a “dad speech.” I talked about how you should think positively before a race, even if you’re nervous, because how you think about yourself can have a big impact on what actually ends up happening.
But the worst was what I’d said next.
I pointed out the fact that she’s going to middle school next year, and middle schoolers often form really strong opinions about other people. “And while we’ve always talked about not caring what other people think,” I said, “you have to also make sure that you’re presenting yourself to the world in the way you want to be seen. And when someone asks something about you and give a bummed out, negative answer—well, people don’t really want to hang out with someone who’s negative.”
Yikes, I know. It sounded better in my head…
A few moments later, my wife came into the room—we take turns spending a few minutes separately with each of our kids before bed. And as I moved into my son’s room and sat on his bed with him, I heard some muffled sobs from my daughter’s room next-door. After lights went out and my wife and I were both downstairs, I asked her what she and my daughter were talking about. “She said that what you told her made her feel like she was a horrible person.“ My heart plummeted. “Should I go upstairs and apologize?“ I asked. “No,” my wife said, “she’s really tired and might already be asleep. Plus, I told her that you and I are working on being more positive ourselves, and that sometimes parents hope their kids can learn lessons that they’re still trying to figure out themselves.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF APOLOGIZING TO YOUR KIDS
The immediacy with which my wife’s words made me want to go upstairs and apologize to my daughter, sure, was partly out of guilt. Making your kid feel like a terrible person pretty instantly makes you feel like one, too.
But just like the much wiser words that my wife shared with my daughter, 11 1/2 years of parenting have shown me that apologizing to your kids when you know that you’re wrong can teach both them and you some powerful lessons.
YOU ARE YOUR CHILD’S GREATEST ROLE MODEL
This may be quite obvious to some, but the best way to teach your kids how you’d like them to behave is to behave that way yourself.
Tell me if this scenario sound familiar to you:
One of your kids does something hurtful to another child. You tell him to say ‘sorry,’ and he either refuses until you pester him more, or he says “Sooo-rryyyyy,” clearly not feeling any real remorse. You tell him to “say sorry like you mean it,” and you might get a more subdued “sorry” that’s better, but still seems like it’s more in response to you than from the heart.
The fact is, we parents often ask our kids to apologize when they’ve done something wrong, and we’re only occasionally satisfied with the result.
But have you ever truly taught your child how to apologize?
We make a point to teach our kids so many other things—I wouldn’t throw my daughter into a breaststroke event at a swim meet without showing her how to swim it first. But when it comes to challenging social or interpersonal skills like smoothing over a fight or telling someone you’re truly sorry, we often ask our kids to do it without really showing them how.
When you’ve made a mistake or upset your child in some way, taking the time sit down and apologize teaches your child both that it’s important and how to do it. It normalizes apologizing—showing your kids that even you apologize when you’re wrong makes it less taboo of an act for them. And thoughtfully apologizing on your own volition shows your kids that it’s more than reluctantly saying “I’m sorry” when forced to by an adult, but instead an honest, heartfelt act built out of caring for the other person.
The words you use, the tone you set, the meaning you put behind the act—these teach your children the value of apologizing and the right way to do it.
SHOWING YOUR KIDS YOU AREN’T PERFECT LETS THEM KNOW THEY DON’T HAVE TO BE
Longtime followers know that I am a strong believer in the benefit of mindfulness and mindfulness-based practices for both kids and parents.
Part of my biggest personal challenge with mindfulness philosophy is the idea of accepting some things as they are. I grew up with a fiery internal drive to always be my best, to constantly strive to get better and better. And while as an adult I’ve made my peace with that paradox of accepting things as they are while also constantly aiming to be better (the famous serenity poem got it right), constant striving and perfectionism can be a stressful burden for many kids.
Think of how often you might cheer for your kids when they accomplish something big, or how you might criticize or show a look of disappointment when your kids fail at something you know they should be able to do. Whether we intend to or not, even the best of parents set expectations for their kids and create at least occasional pressure on them to be more perfect.
When you say to your child “I’m sorry, I made a mistake; I said what I said because of how I was feeling, not how I was thinking,“ you show your child that even you—a person who is perfect in their eyes—isn’t always perfect in real life.
The tiny moment of you apologizing for a wrong unlocks for your kids the wisdom that it’s OK to fail as long as you learn from the experience, atone for your mistakes, and live smarter next time.
THE SECRET TO MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS AND GROWING AS A PERSON
Saying you’re sorry isn’t always easy—in fact, it rarely is. It doesn’t come naturally to many of us. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable.
And that’s exactly why it’s so important.
The biggest gains in life come only through overcoming adversity. That isn’t just a slogan fit for the wall of a fitness studio—it’s a fact of life. We know this as individuals—we only grow as people by getting back up again and overcoming life’s challenges. But it’s just as true for relationships. Relationships are strengthened when discord is repaired, not ignored—as ignoring problems only allows them to fester and relationships to sour or become stale.
Think of everything you’re proudest of in your life—the things you’ve accomplished or can do, the bonds you share with your best of friends and loved ones. Chances are, you rode through some tough times to get there, whether on your own or with others.
Recognizing your own mistakes and accepting the guilt that goes with knowing you hurt another person? Sitting down face-to-face with the one you hurt and asking their forgiveness? That’s not easy. It’s awkward, messy, and uncomfortable.
That simple yet simultaneously complicated moment of apologizing to someone you’ve hurt can both strengthen the bond between you and help you grow in your own emotional self-awareness. And when that someone is your child, you stand to grow even closer together and become a better parent in the process.
THINGS WORK OUT WHEN YOUR HEART IS SET IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Shortly after my wife told me what happened and a ball of guilt was sinking in my chest, my daughter came back downstairs. She couldn’t fall asleep, so she came to ask for the Cloud Story.
I sprang up off the couch, eager to get a few more moments with her and clear the air.
“Before I tell you the Cloud Story,” I said once she got settled in bed, “I want to say I’m sorry. You know mom is usually right—and what she said is true, she and I have been talking about trying to focus on being positive, and I wanted to pass that on to you. But I said it pretty terribly, didn’t I?” A half-smile from my daughter. “Sometimes a great idea in your head comes out as a pretty awful thing to say. I think you’re an amazing person and I love you very much—and always will.”
We hugged, a good, tight, lingering hug.
I told her the Cloud Story.
We both slept peacefully that night.
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a pediatrician & host of The Child Repair Guide Podcast. He makes plenty of mistakes as a dad, then shares what he learns so you don’t have to make the same mistakes, too. His daughter totally signed up for the IM again the next week & loved it!